Prone to Wander

Early astronomers held tightly to the view that our planet was the center of the solar system. The geocentric model, as it was called, showed that the Earth was in the middle, and everything else, including the Sun, revolved around it. Aristotle proposed this view around the 4th Century B.C., and a few centuries later in the 2nd Century A.D., Claudius Ptolemaeus elaborated on the philosophy and created a model for the universe based on that view. A man named Aristarchus of Samos proposed an alternative view a century later, suggesting that the Earth actually revolved around the Sun and not the other way around, but this view was not accepted, and for nearly 1500 years, the Earth-centered view was maintained.

Not surprisingly, when a 17th Century astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model for the universe, meaning that it was centered around the Sun instead of the Earth, it set the stage for dramatic changes in the field of astronomy, particularly when Galileo Galilei made observations through his telescope that supported this theory around seven decades later. There was strong opposition against this theory, though not merely amongst astronomers—it also caused controversy within the Catholic Church. Apparently, the idea that the Earth wasn’t in fact the center of the universe conflicted with the views of many Christian theologians. After all, the book of Genesis opens by stating that in the beginning, God created two things in particular—”the heavens, and the earth.” To them, saying that the Earth actually revolved around the Sun just like all the other planets was heresy, and they took this heresy seriously. After facing the Inquisition of the Catholic Church, Galileo was placed under house arrest, and he remained under it for the rest of his life.

In spite of the resistance, this view eventually proved to be undeniable, specifically when Sir Isaac Newton came on to the scene and presented his findings on the laws of gravitation and motion. His laws showed that the Earth not only revolved around the Sun, but that the gravitational pull of the Sun was what kept the Earth from flying off into space. His laws demonstrated that the Earth and all the other planets in our solar system were in motion, and if not for the Sun’s gravitational pull, all of them would fly off in a straight line. It’s as if the Earth is a rock tied to the end of a string, and it’s spinning around the hand of whoever is holding the string, which in this case would be the Sun.

I remember when I first realized this. I was in a sixth-grade science class, and like most kids at that age, I had a very basic understanding of our solar system and how things like gravity and inertia worked. But one day, my teacher told us that at that very moment, even though we were seemingly sitting still in our desks, we were all moving at an incredible rate of speed. He went on to tell us that if for some reason the Earth were to stop moving, we would all fly off to our deaths in an instant. Naturally, being the kid that I was, I went around living in fear of this possibility for a period of time afterwards. Even now, it’s a strange thought to consider that our planet is in motion, and as Newton said, it will remain in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.

A few decades after Newton’s death, a pastor named Robert Robinson wrote a hymn that had nothing to do with astronomy, at least not directly. But looking at the words in hindsight, they seem to take both Newton’s laws and the Catholic Church’s resistance to Heliocentrism into account. In many ways, the words of his hymn show from a theological perspective that the Sun-centered view of our solar system actually lines up with the Biblical view of a God-centered humanity. The hymn Robinson wrote was called “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” and the pivotal verse in the hymn goes like this:

O to grace how great a debtor
  Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
  Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
  Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
  Seal it for Thy courts above.

That word “fetter” which comes in the third line refers to a shackle. The line is literally saying, “Chain me up to goodness.” Some modern versions of this hymn have changed the words in the fifth and sixth lines to rid the hymn of its bluntness. No good Christian wants to admit that they might be “prone to wander,” or “prone to leave…God.” And yet, Robinson knew that to be human was to be prone to wandering. Much like the very Earth that we inhabit, we are prone to wander. We’re prone to leave the place where we should be. We need something to hold us in place, to keep us on our course, and to keep us in the light of the Sun—the Son. Here’s to that being the center of our universe.

For “in Him all things hold together.” -Colossians 1:17

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